Charlie Chaplin: The life story of a legend, in interviews, articles, video & photos

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Charlie Chaplin’s Story, part IV: The funnyman as a serious, systematic director

By Harry C. Carr – Photoplay Magazine, October 1915

You often hear wise moving picture fans tell how Charlie Chaplin produces a picture by just dashing out anything that comes into his head. Yes indeed! Chaplin dashes through a scenario just about the way a watchmaker dashes through the work of repairing a repeater. All these uproariously funny Chaplin farces have been made slowly and painfully.

Chaplin never works from a regularly “written out” scenario. He gets a general idea, then slowly patches it together after getting the actors in front of the camera. Most of the scenarios are his own stuff. He says he thinks of them as he walks along the street, or in cafes, or any old where. Most of the time. Chaplin seems abstracted and as far away as in a dream. This is because he is usually manufacturing some moving picture story.

He says he got one of the best hunches he ever had while eating lunch. It struck him so suddenly that he almost went out without paying the check.

The scenario for “His Trysting Place” came from an old comic song that Chaplin’s father sang in vaudeville years ago.

Charles Chaplin behind the camera

Once he has possession of the hunch, Chaplin begins directing the piece. His methods in this are as eccentric as are all his other ways.

Chaplin plants himself in a chair just out of range of the camera. As he always acts in the piece he is directing, he always wears his stage costume. He pulls the dinky little derby down over his eyes, spraddles his big shoes out in front of him and the actors begin.

Chaplin lets them do their comedy just as they please as long as they please him — which is about five seconds, usually. He sits and watches them with an expression which seems to say, “Good Lord, and these guys are getting money for doing this!” Then when he can’t stand it any longer he jumps up and shows them how to do it.

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He very rarely tells them what to do; he shows them. The result is that every part in every Charlie Chaplin piece is acted by Charlie Chaplin himself. As he goes along, he makes almost innumerable changes and corrections. As he practically writes his scenarios after the acting has begun, it is intensely nervous work. It is as hard to get a chance to see him at work as it is to get into a lodge meeting.

But to show you the instinctive kindness of the man, the other day two little street boys were found peeking in under the fence. One of the supers was going to drive them away, but Charlie called them in.

There happened to be a lull in the proceedings, so he pretended to direct them in a comedy. To their delight, he put them through a little impromptu scenario. And it was noted that he was just as careful in directing their stuff as his own. The general public, he refused to admit to the studio, thereby differing from some directors, who seem happiest when a crowd is looking on.

A very important and rather arduous part of picture work is selecting the “locations.” In most companies, this is the job of the assistant directors. Chaplin, however, does all his own searching for locations. However, it must be said that most of his locations are simple and easy to find.

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In moving picture work, a great deal of time is wasted while the cameramen are fixing the light shields, and other necessary contrivances. During this time, the actors are left to their own devices. Chaplin fools around during these periods and unconsciously pulls some of his funniest comedy.

While he was still with Keystone, they went down to the Ince ranch to produce that prehistoric film in which a great snake pulled “Ambrose” up a cliff. They had a whole basket of snakes down on the beach. While they were waiting to begin, Chaplin started to juggling with the snakes in imitation of a circus snake charmer. It was so funny that it nearly broke up the business of the numerous Ince companies for the day.

Chaplin, like many of the big directors, is a great waster of film. He never leaves a situation until he is thoroughly satisfied with it, and he is hard to satisfy. He is very much given to retakes, which is the most expensive habit in the movies.

It is plain to the careful observer that Chaplin is working toward something entirely new in pictures. In a general way, his idea is that comedy should be more subtle and have more real story, although the horseplay antics he indulges in make that idea hardly credible.

He made the greatest advance in this direction in “The Tramp.” In this, there was not only a real story, but a touch of real pathos which gave Chaplin a chance for the greatest “finish” that has ever been shown in any movie comedy. I think everyone who saw it will agree with me on that point.

Chaplin’s idea is that one of the old-style rough comedies gives absolutely no chance for real effects. When the paperhanger has spilled paste down the back of the dude and somebody has been pushed off into the lake, the comedy has been exhausted.

Plays like “The Tramp” open up all kinds of chances for contrasts, — lights and shade. He does many things now because he believes “the public wants them so” — and for no other reason.

Chaplin also believes that scenarios will be longer. He is a great admirer of “The Birth of a Nation.” He saw that play nearly every week during its long run in Los Angeles. His idea is that comedies will also come to the point where one funny film provides a whole evening’s entertainment. “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” he believes an example of this tendency.

He has two reasons for wanting to put on longer plays. One is that it will give more time in which to carefully work out his effects. The greatest reason is that he can produce the same financial returns without appearing so often.

Chaplin is of the opinion that it is taking an awful chance with his popularity to be shown in a new comedy every week or so. We see Maude Adams at long intervals — once a year, perhaps, and we are eager to see her. But would we be so keen if we could see her in four or five different plays the same night in the same town?

As Chaplin says, this is a terrific test of popularity.

Vintage Charlie Chaplin silent movies (1)

In the meantime, however, his popularity continues to increase to a veritable craze. When Charlie Chaplin goes to a summer resort near Los Angeles, it is like the triumphant visit of a king.

It is an open secret that Chaplin doesn’t expect to be in the pictures long. “I want to make all the money I can,” he says. “Then, in a few years, I am going to quit. I will pass along and let some other fellow have the center of the stage. I have made a bigger hit than I ever thought possible in my wildest dreams. And I am much obliged to everyone for laughing. For the public is the entertainer’s court of last appeal.”

That Charlie Chaplin is a born actor, entertainer, clown and buffoon, not only while posing before the camera, but from the time he rises in the morning till he goes to sleep at night — generally late at night — is the sum of the opinions of his colleagues at Niles, with whom he worked for months.

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Some of these actors and actresses, as is the way with stage folk, do not speak very highly of Chaplin’s “art,” yet all of them recognize that there is some sort of mad genius in the little chap who has made the whole country laugh at his antics. As for Chaplin himself, he stoutly contends that it takes as much conscientious preparation for a comedy as for the so-called higher art.

Now for a few instances to prove the above verdict of his colleagues:

Five or six months ago, the Essanay company decided that Chaplin ought to have a madcap partner of the opposite sex to hurl through his dizzy series of utterly illogical exploits. Chaplin and his managers had the whole field of musical comedy, comic opera, comic drama, and burlesque.

The golden megaphone of the Essanay company could summon any one of a thousand or two of sprightly young women with lots of stage experience. praised and petted in public — and funny!

“Let’s just put an ad in the paper,” suggested Chaplin, scratching his curly poll. “Let’s get some new blood in the game.”

The following morning there was a small personal advertisement in one of the San Francisco papers, offering a position in the “movies” to a young girl without previous stage experience. During the next week or two, Chaplin looked over more than a thousand fair applicants. The cat was out of the bag. The stage-struck young women of San Francisco knew that Chaplin was looking for a girl to play against him, and the competition became hysterical.

Chaplin, unaided, selected one. Miss Edna Purviance, who did not know even the alphabet of the stage business. She has made good. She has appeared in a number of reels with Chaplin, offering an excellent foil for him.

Charlie Chaplin luxuriating on the cushions, with Edna Purviance 1915
Charlie Chaplin luxuriating on the cushions, with Edna Purviance, his new leading lady at the wheel.

There were some heartaches at Niles, but the work of the new film actress convinced both actors and Chaplin’s employees that he knew something about the show business, which they had never suspected in one so guileless.

“How the Dickens did he manage to do it?” asked one of the veteran comedians at Niles. “That job of picking a new woman is one of the tricks of the trade which ancient and honorable managers have spent scores of years in mastering.”

The selection of Miss Purviance might, of course, be explained as a lucky accident, a lottery chance. But then there is Dick Turpin, whom Chaplin selected for important parts in his reels.

Turpin is almost as funny as Chaplin himself and divided honors with him in several film comedies. Here was another instance of Chaplin’s astuteness.

His ability to pick winners was further shown recently in the selection of Bud Jamieson, with whom the comedian recently became acquainted in San Francisco. Jamieson is big, fat, genial, jolly, and an excellent musician, but he had never been on the stage till Chaplin and his associates invited him to Niles, not for the purpose of entering the “movies.” But just to amuse the player sort of court-jester to folk out there!

“This guy is good,” remarked Chaplin to the boss of the Niles film ranch. “He’s handed me a bunch of laughs. I’ll bet he can make other people laugh.”

Bud Jamieson was pulled from his piano and given small roles in the Chaplin comedies. He made an instant hit, and he is doing well at present.

Charlie Chaplin on set

At Niles, they say that Chaplin’s thrift in money matters is excelled by none, and equaled only by that well known Scotch coin preserver, Harry Lauder.

“Chaplin has got some of the oldest money in California,” said one of his colleagues at Niles. “He never had a bank account till he joined the Essanay, and in a few years, he’ll be selling at a premium the coin he received as his first week’s salary.

“He didn’t know how to make out a bank account till a few months ago, and he didn’t know how to draw a check. One of the boys offered to show him how to make out a check. Chaplin watched him a few moments, and then shut his eyes tight, and turned away.

“I don’t want to learn. I don’t want to learn.”

“But he is learning how to write a check,” said another movie actor. “I saw him write a check once.”

“You did?” yelled a chorus of doubting actors and actresses.

“I did. It was on April 21, or was it March 21? Well, anyhow, it was on the twenty-first of some month. I remember because Chaplin wrote the date 21th!”

Most of the film actors at Niles live in cottages. Chaplin occupied a cottage with one of the actors, and at first bade fair to become a popular member of the colony, but that was before he brought his “Tabby” to Niles.

One day he returned from San Francisco in great glee carrying under his arm a battered violin case. The same night he began to make nightlife in Niles hideous with the mournful strains which he tortured out of an ancient and disreputable violin. The film folk promptly likened Chaplin’s playing to the wailing of an old tabby-cat on a back fence at midnight, mourning over a misspent life.

The musically-inclined actors aver that Chaplin has assassinated more tunes on his violin than a score of German street bands. There was some talk of dipping the film star and his “Tabby” into the bay, but nothing came of it. The plotters evidently remembered that Tabbies have nine lives.

The actors recovered their sense of humor, and when the wailing, discordant notes of Chaplin’s fiddle broke the rustic evening stillness, they joined in a lugubrious chorus, each voice a semi-tone out of tune.

Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks 1917

Chaplin’s habits are mostly those of a bat. Those who know him best say he would never go to bed if he could have his own way about it. He is by nature “a sun dodger,” according to his companions. He has never been known to yawn after sunset, but none of the other characteristics of a nighthawk are his. He does not drink. In fact, his dissipation is confined to turning day into night and smoking.

But sleep or no sleep, Charlie Chaplin has never been known to show the lack of slumber the next day. When the Australian Boys’ Club, which has been visiting the Exposition and the Pacific coast and Canada, came to Niles, Chaplin presented himself unannounced. He was immediately recognized by one of the lads who had seen him in pictures in the Antipodes.

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“There is Charlie Chaplin!” shouted the boy, and Chaplin found himself surrounded by the youngsters. The comedian went through all his favorite poses, relieved the bandmaster of his baton, and led the band, going through his whole repertoire of antics.

It was an awful concert, for the boys could not play their instruments and laugh at Chaplin at the same time. The boys gave him three Kangaroo cheers when the concert was finished, and Chaplin returned the compliment by presenting each of the lads with his autographed photograph.

The Hotel Oakland was made the scene of one of Chaplin’s comedies. Out of a side entrance staggered Chaplin one sunny morning in a terribly disheveled condition, chased by another actor. Evidently, there had been an annihilating fight in the preceding scene. Both men were supposed to be filled to the tonsils with some compound of rum.

Edna Purviance and Charles Chaplin

They ran and tumbled and rolled around a corner, out of the camera’s range, and into its range stepped other actors and actresses, supposed to be in the same party, and when they had finished their turn, the cameraman stopped turning the crank, waiting for Chaplin and his companion to return. The company and the cameraman waited in vain.

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Finally one of the actors noticed a number of people running from all directions toward Fourteenth street where Chaplin and his partner had disappeared. He walked toward the corner of Fourteenth street just in time to see a patrol wagon dash up to a large crowd of people.

A minute or so later three or four fat policemen struggled from the center of the jam toward the patrol wagon dragging Chaplin and his companion. The pair had tumbled into the arms of a conscientious officer who thought Chaplin and his friends were intoxicated. Explanations availed nothing.

“You do your explaining to the judge,” was the policeman’s only reply, and it took the combined efforts of the whole movie company to release Chaplin and his fellow actor.

Charles Chaplin in 1921

Chaplin’s first appearance in Oakland caused nearly a riot. With several movie actors, he was about to enter a restaurant when he was recognized, and the cry of “Here’s Charlie Chaplin!” summoned every rubberneck in the vicinity. Chaplin escaped into the restaurant, and the crowd followed.

Chaplin did not want to disappoint his admirers, so he took a ketchup bottle and emptied it into the pocket of a waiter. Somebody grabbed the waiter’s strong right arm just before the bottle descended on Charlie’s head. The restaurant was in an uproar.

When the table was laid and the order served, Chaplin disposed of his frugal meal just as he sometimes does in the film comedies. It was not refined fun, but the crowd laughed because it had seen a living demonstration of the comedy king.

Mention has been made of the fact that Chaplin talks to himself when he is alone. As a matter of fact, he talks to himself whether alone or in a crowd when he is not talking to someone else. The moment he ceases talking with anyone else, Charlie takes up the conversation with Mr. Chaplin.

On the next page: The end of Chaplin’s life, and his legacy

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